by Jenny Drescher and Ellen Feldman Ornato
“Improvisation frees us from being perfect, being in control, thinking ahead, and second-guessing. It can feel like jumping into the abyss at first, but once you jump, fear turns into excitement, and your imagination kicks in.” — Linda Naiman
Have you ever heard someone complain that company change is top-down, that leadership is setting visions but not realistically accounting for how employees will execute? Disengagement and cynicism happen when people receive mandates for change or improvement but lack the skills and resources to create the desired results. Pair this with human nature that resists change and the unknown, and the implementation of strategic, mission-driven work is at risk if behaviors and mindsets don’t shift towards the desired visions.
How does a nationally recognized leader in electrical parts distribution build rapid, sustainable capacity so that employees can and will embrace change and tackle new challenges? Sales and management associates’ skills of this regional powerhouse lagged behind the competition. Team members focused on transactional versus relational selling and were described as “old school” by leadership. With change afoot throughout the industry, the company recognized a pressing need to develop their organization’s client-facing teams, to strengthen existing client relationships, retain market share, and build capacity within its employee groups.
The leadership team took a deep breath, realizing they needed to think differently about developing their people and their culture. They took a hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at their processes and environment. What they discovered was the effects of rapid change that had spurred growth but left its workforce feeling overwhelmed and distrusting of leadership. Employees were waiting for the next operational, technological, or promotional change to come from on high, and too often found themselves unable to execute these changes effectively. The bold move leadership made was simple: to see themselves through honest eyes, instead of blaming employees, and start trying on fresh solutions to engage, develop, and, ultimately, keep their talent.
Enter the skills of improvisation. In the theater, improvisers practice a variety of skills through play to create performance. These same skills are at the heart of leadership and teaming, innovation, and client care, including such areas as:
- Intense and intentional listening.
- Seeking value in others’ contributions, building agreement.
- Creating a productive relationship to risk and failure.
- Spontaneity, flexibility, and situational awareness.
- Elevating others and collaborating to create.
- Lightening up and having fun.
These abilities and principles are essential to leading and developing a customer-focused team that can handle both technology and people at the same time. They’re also keys to building a culture that grows individuals, makes a difference in the world, and creates community. This is critical for attracting the next generation — a diverse workforce of people who have a desire to thrive and work hard in a culture that invites it and will readily depart one that doesn’t.
The Bolder Company created a development program for the teams. The goals were to:
- Improve relational skills with customers and colleagues.
- Drive sales and increase profit margins.
- Retain top talent and improve employee satisfaction.
- Increase leadership and ownership mindset and activities.
The program blended active skill-building with core content in a fun, improvisation-based learn-it, do-it, own-it format, including topics like delegation, personality type, people reading, emotional intelligence, conflict management, and presentations.
The results were amazing to watch as team members listened and communicated better than they ever had before. They learned to speak up and proactively identify broader opportunities, ask more-effective questions, and become less reactive in challenging situations. They lightened up, started adapting, and began viewing themselves as profit-center leaders, not just managers.
Bonds developed between participants, many of whom had only known each other as peers at meetings. Across the organization, teams report a higher level of cooperation, more productive relationships with their direct reports, a willingness to share best practices, and a desire to continuously support each other. These relationships stabilize the company’s regional stronghold and position it for future growth and success. Senior leadership participated with their people, learning alongside them and cultivating trust. The company has started the essential journey of bravely reshaping their culture to take it into the future.
Jenny Drescher and Ellen Feldman Ornato are founding partners of The Bolder Company in West Harford, Conn.